40. The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
What is a forgery? Where does the fault line between artwork and forgery lie? Or, as Claire Roth, the protagonist of B.A. Shapiro’s elegantly layered new novel The Art Forger might say, the craquelure.
In 1990, thirteen paintings were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The museum has offered a $5 million reward, but none of the paintings have ever been found. This much is true, the rest is Shapiro's fiction.
The Art Forger opens in 2011, at the South End studio of young Boston artist Claire Roth, who makes her living as a painter of high-quality reproductions. Dubbed “the Great Pretender,” by her peers, Claire has more than a little to prove when she is asked to make a copy of a Degas painting in exchange for a one-woman show at a prestigious gallery. When the painting she is to copy arrives, she recognizes it immediately as one from the Gardner. While the moral dilemma is a problem for Claire, there’s a greater sense of unease as she begins to doubt whether it was actually a Degas in the first place.
The novel functions in layers upon layers that, rather than slowly unravel, rest upon one another to create a complete picture of a world that few have really “seen.” Shapiro initiates readers into the vocabulary of the art world without making it seem too complicated. Behind, the “wet-on-wet,” “wet-on-dry,” “juxtaposition,” “realism,” mumbo jumbo, the art is a cover for something more universally human. The value of a painting in Claire’s world hinges less on the art than on the reputation of the artist. A few collectors and curators have the power to make or break careers. And the few have already decided what they are or are not willing to see.
As swiftly as she introduces the reader to the starving young artist’s environs, Shapiro rapidly descends into the twisted labyrinth of the art forger’s lair. The book often reads like an art forger’s manual, as Claire describes the processes through which she creates her painting; stripping down a nineteenth century painting for its canvas, using original oil paints, baking the canvas between layers to dry the paint, and varnishing it while still hot to establish the original pattern of cracks in the paint, known as craquelure. So much time is spent on this process that it is hard to distinguish which act of creation is more authentic; the artwork or its undoubtedly far more painstakingly rendered reproduction. The line is blurred even further when Claire decides to also bake the original paintings for her new show, as she likes the effects of the technique.
The book is billed as a thriller, but it's largely character-driven.
Each layer, Claire’s past, Claire's present, and even the piquant epistolary voice of Isabella Stewart Gardner herself, builds to suggest a greater confusion about the nature of art and authenticity. A subplot where Claire teaches an art class for juvenile offenders is unnecessary. The Gardner letters are also strictly unnecessary, but so forgivable as she's such a fun character.
The game of musical paintings that absorbs the second half of the book is highly entertaining, and if you've lived in Boston, it's exciting to recognize many of the places that Claire and her friends frequent. However, the book asks some very intimidating real-world questions, and even after it appears all the paintings are hung in their rightful places, the answers are far from clear.
Disclosure: I received an ARC from the publisher